Brazilian police investigate links to illegal fishing in missing British journalist

Brazilian police investigating the disappearance of a British journalist and an indigenous expert in the Amazon rainforest are targeting people involved in illegal fishing and poaching on indigenous lands, three officials told Reuters.

Two of the officers are detectives from the Amazonas state police directly involved in the case, while the other is a Brazilian federal police officer who follows him closely. They requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

“The main criminal hypothesis at the moment is that the people involved, and their motive, were related to illegal fishing and illegal hunting in indigenous territories,” said the federal police officer.

Witnesses said they last saw Dom Phillips, a freelance journalist who has written for the Guardian and Washington Post, on Sunday. Phillips was traveling the depths of a lawless part of the Amazon rainforest with Bruno Pereira, a former employee of the federal indigenous agency Funai.

Their disappearance has echoed globally, with politicians, celebrities, journalists and activists calling on the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to step up efforts to find them.

Sian Phillips along with Gareth Phillips, right, brothers of Dom Phillips, hold a poster and a rose outside the Brazilian Embassy in London, this Thursday. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Brazilian Justice Minister Anderson Torres said he had told Vicky Ford, the top British official responsible for Latin America, that Brazil would continue the search for Phillips until all possibilities were exhausted after finding her on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. Angeles. Angels.

John Kerry presses for the search to continue

Torres said he had 300 people, two aircraft and 20 boats carrying out the search in what he called a “very difficult region”.

“Even if you have 30 aircraft, a million people, it might not work,” said Torres, who was also pressured by US weather John Kerry at the summit to keep up the search.

Phillips and Pereira were on a reporting trip to Vale do Javari, a remote jungle area near the Peruvian and Colombian borders that is home to the largest number of uncontacted indigenous people in the world. The wild and undisciplined region attracted cocaine smugglers as well as poachers and illegal fishermen.

Fishermen and poachers roam the Javari Valley, close to the Peruvian border, to find protected species such as the arapaima, which is sold in regional markets in nearby towns such as Tabatinga. In 2019, Maxciel Pereira, who was working with Funai to end illegal fishing in Vale do Javari, was shot dead in Tabatinga.

Navy sailors look for Phillips and Pereira aboard a speedboat on the Itaquai River, in the Vale do Javari Indigenous Land, Atalaia do Norte, Amazonas state, Brazil this Thursday. (Edmar Barros/The Associated Press)

As a former Funai employee on the Javari indigenous reserve, Pereira frequently clashed with fishermen who looted protected fish stocks and traveled around the region at gunpoint. He had recently received a threatening letter from a fisherman, police told Reuters.

Questioned fishermen

Police in the city of Atalaia do Norte questioned several fishermen as witnesses and arrested one of them, a local fisherman named Amarildo da Costa, known locally as “Pelado”. He was charged with illegal possession of restricted ammunition. Police said he was one of the last people to see the two men.

Federal police said Thursday that a forensic expert and state police are checking the boat for “possible genetic material” with the Luminol reagent, which reveals bloodstains. A detective on the case said police were investigating whether the traces of blood found on da Costa’s boat were human or not.

The senior Federal Police officer and one of the detectives said that da Costa was suspected of involvement in illegal fishing. The detective said that da Costa and several other local fishermen interviewed by police as witnesses were working for a man known as “Colombia,” a major buyer of fish and game caught in the reserve.

Reuters was unable to contact or determine the formal name of the buyer. Two residents of Atalaia do Norte told Reuters that “Colombia” lived across the border from Peru.

Da Costa’s lawyer, Davi Oliveira, said his client was not involved in Phillips and Pereira’s disappearance and was only involved in legal fishing.

Oliveira said he did not know if da Costa worked for “Colombia”. Oliveira withdrew from the case on Thursday, and it was not immediately clear who would take up da Costa’s defense in court.

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